Sunday, June 17, 2018

Master Blueprints # 23: “He Not Busy Being Born is Busy Dying”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

Part 2 of 2:  An alternate world Theme Time Radio Hour episode, where I fill in as the host.  The 10 songs covered are all Bob Dylan’s - seeing as he never covered his own music on his show. I’m also trying to emulate Dylan’s style on his Theme Time show.  The first 4 songs were covered in the last entry (# 22), and the remaining 6 are here.  Oh, yes, the Theme: “Astonish”

Mark Twain once said “Do the right thing.  It will gratify some people, and astonish the rest”.  The origin of the term ‘astonish’ goes back to 16th Century Old French, and combines the Latin terms ex- (out) and tonare, which means ‘to thunder’.  The word is often used to describe great literature.  For example, this from American novelist Terry Southern: “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish.  Not shock -shock is a worn-out word – but astonish”.  And, from the great comic writer Alan Moore: “If you give me a typewriter and I’m having a good day, I can write a scene that will astonish its readers.  That will perhaps make them laugh, perhaps make them cry – that will have some emotional clout to it.  It doesn’t cost much to do that”.  Finally, Milan Kundera may have summed associating literature with astonishing up best: “The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish”. 

In the case of Bob Dylan, the ability to astonish plays out on several levels.  The written word, yes, but also in the harmonious vocal delivery and the accompaniment music.  Many have speculated this multi-tiered approach to his success was a big reason why Dylan was reluctant at first to recognize receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. In other words, the notion that the listener needs to take in the entire package to make the connection apparently made him feel ill at ease to receive such specialized recognition.  If so Dylan was not alone in his negative reaction.  Don’t count me on that list.  Yes, I agree you need to take the entire package in to truly appreciate what’s there in the genius that is Bob Dylan, but I thought it was extremely insightful of Nobel to toss aside the narrower definition in this special case.  There are always exceptions to the rules.  This is one of them.

However, Bob Dylan does have astonishing ‘passages’ that stand on their own, including “he not busy being born is busy dying” from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which may just top them all.  It’s timeless. My first impression when I really took it in was that Dylan must have quoted it from the Bible, maybe Saint Paul.  But no, this is an original.  My parents had this caption up on their kitchen wall for years.  It was on a poster with an idyllic nature scene, given to them by my late, great Aunt Ginger, who was a Dominican Sister (Sister Virginia Smith). Both my parents and my Aunt predated the Bob Dylan/Beatles/Woodstock 60s era by a good 10 years.  The influence of the music of that era on my parents was limited at best (a particularly high hurdle for my Dad seeing as, from early in his life, Dad has always been a Classical Music guy, and couldn’t stand the Elvis-lead music of the 50s even as he was living it out at the perfect age).

Ginger tragically died in a car accident around the time that I was just ramping up my fascination in all things Bob Dylan (back in the late 80s and early 90s).  To this day I wonder if my Aunt knew whose quote that was, seeing as my parents did not.  Having a good feel for her populist allegiances…. I’m betting she did.  Anyhow, all three – Ginger and my parents - lived up to the standard expressed in that short phrase (in the case of my parents, they continue to do so).  I believe Bob Dylan has lived up to it too.  It’s why he continues to produce quality music deep into his 70s.  With that said, let’s give “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” a listen.  After all, the vast remainder of the lyrics only add to the astonishment of this literary gem:

I mentioned comics a few moments ago.  Stan Lee and his Marvel Universe has been the king of that hill for pretty much my entire lifetime.  I was an avid reader of Marvel back in the day, and have enjoyed the blockbuster movie adaptations for the most part.  Stan the Man has been in the business of astonishing for quite some time.  In fact, he’s attempted to cover the gambit of synonyms in this regard, associating a stunning adjective with virtually every one of his comic book series.  And so, the title of, say, the Hulk’s series wasn’t just “The Hulk”, it was The Incredible Hulk.  The X-Men were “Uncanny”.  We also had The Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Avengers, The Amazing Spider Man and The Fantastic Four, among many others.

What may have started this adjective frenzy was Tales to Astonish, which made the leap from Marvel’s forerunner Atlas Comics to Marvel in the early 60s.   Stan Lee personally wrote many of the stories in Tales to Astonish.  One of the most famous characters to get created in the series was Henry Pym, aka Ant Man.  The series eventually morphed into The Incredible Hulk in the late 60s. 

Stan Lee has also been a longstanding advocate for human rights and civil rights.  His Uncanny X-Men series, which has humans treating mutants as outcasts, was an indirect way of addressing bigotry to young minds.  Bob Dylan has done his share of calling out in this regard too, including in his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”.  This true-story of the murder-by-whim of a black maid by a young socialite may or may not have been executed out of pure ignorance alone.  But Dylan points out in the song that the racial injustice is still there, in the meager sentencing. 

There are several astonishing lines in this song that I’d like to reflect on here.  The first is in the refrain: “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears”.  Bob Dylan reminds us that we need to connect with these types of stories on a personal – vs. objective – level.  Otherwise, we forget and move on prematurely (this is surely why the word "lonesome" is included in the title). 

The second astonishing line(s) can only be discussed by first reading though the lyrics:

“Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger”

Notice, the three lines in a row that end with the same word: table.  How I interpret this is, the disgust was so palpable when Bob Dylan came up with these lyrics, that he does not even bother to find words that rhyme.  The astonishing thing is, it works on a “whole other level” - far more so than if he had attempted to negotiate in rhyming words.  As I’ve said before in my blog series – who does this?

Here’s a superb version of Bob Dylan performing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” around the time he wrote it in the mid-60s.  I also recommend tracking down the version on the Bootleg Series Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review, which can’t be beat.

2006 was not only the year of the start of Theme Time Radio, it was also the year of the release of one of Bob Dylan’s all-time best albums, Modern Times.  What is astonishing in this case is the creativity that had been maintained by Dylan seeing as, at the time he was 65 years of age.  Modern Times is one of Bob Dylan’s most consistent albums.  There are no hits.  There are no low points. There’s simply solid bluesy excellence from beginning to end.  It’s arguably the most even-keeled album I’ve ever identified with.

If there is any disc where Bob Dylan put himself in someone else’s shoes routinely throughout, this is it.  You must keep this in mind when you listen.  The Blues can be deceiving.  At first glance there’s a “woe is me” interpretation.  But the Blues evolved out of hard, poor living, created by struggling soul’s way back when, who were experiencing life in a way that can be very difficult to understand in our relatively cushy world.  Bob Dylan is astonishingly able to relate to those struggles on Modern Times. 

One thought that comes to mind regarding hard living is a visit to Prince Edward Island with my wife and children, as well as my Mom and Dad, back in 2002.  We connected with distant relatives while there.  They were very simple folk; the bluest of blue collar, with an entirely different angle on life than us.  It’s their lives that resonate as I suck in “Workingman’s Blues # 2”.  Give it a solid listen…. you may be surprised where your thoughts go:

What has astonished you?  The power of love? The birth of a child? A natural wonder? A hole in one? There are many experiences in life that can hit us like a ton of bricks.  Sometimes it’s simply a feeling.  For example, a place you’ve never been that feels extremely familiar.  Other times, it’s that sense of déjà vu.  It could also be a sudden flashback to a long-forgotten memory.  And then there’s that sense that you can get on occasion where you feel as if you are going through a predetermined course of events. Destiny. Fate. Things happen for a reason. That sort of thing. 

One Bob Dylan song that’s on my all-time Top 10 list is “A Simple Twist of Fate”.  It’s hard to explain why.  Perhaps it’s because Dylan sets the scene and the mood so brilliantly.  It may also have something to do with the fact that…. I feel as if I understand this song better than the experts.  “A Simple Twist of Fate” opens Blood on the Tracks, which many consider to be Bob Dylan’s most heartfelt album; by virtually all accounts a personal narrative on the turmoil that accompanies estrangement.  In this opening-salvo position, it serves the rest of the album’s narrative to a tee.

So, how does this song astonish?   Well first off, it’s the perfect painting.  Or paintings.  Every stanza creates a brush-stroked image in the mind, physically and emotionally.  You can feel the mutual heaviness of the moment in that opening park-bench setting, the couple struggling with their thoughts.  And you can feel the separation playing out soon after; the woman slipping away pre-dawn, the man coming to terms with his new reality, alone in the neon-light hotel. 

But what’s in the title?  What’s fate got to do with it?  Well, contrary to those expert interpretations I’ve read, which suggest a one-night-stand rendezvous, I believe this is the key breakup moment of a longstanding relationship.  It’s too emotional not to be.  And if fate is going to play a role in your life at any point, be it a twist or not, one would think it would have to be significant.  But don’t let me talk you into it.  You be the judge:

I brought up Alice in Wonderland earlier in the episode.  Two characters in that story – some might say one - are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, which just happens to be the title of the opening track on Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”.  One thing Dylan does as well as anyone is shining a light on bad actors to help make the case for doing what’s right.  You see this throughout his discography: “Masters of War”, “Jokerman”, “Seven Curses”, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”.  "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum“ is no exception. 

Dylan astonishes here by continuing to figure out innovative ways to write a song.  He does this on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” by switching the two names around to pick up on more rhyme potential.  When Dylan needs to rhyme with ‘sun’, ‘run’ and ‘some’, Tweedle Dum gets thrust into the rhyme spot.  And when Dylan needs to match up with the words ‘silently’, ‘tree’, and ‘knee’, Tweetle Dee gets the honor.  The two characters are interchangeable, which gives Bob Dylan this luxury, and I’m sure he was aware of that going in.  There’s all sorts of other rhyming getting thrown in the mix too.  It’s a lesson to young songwriters from the master of the game.

We have time for one more folks.  What astonishing Bob Dylan song to close with?  Let’s see… thumbing through my leftover list, we’ve got “Angelina”, “Wallflower”, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”, “Precious Angel”.  Ahhh, how about this one.  A deep cut from Bob Dylan and The Band’s Big Pink recordings.  “I’m Not There” is one of those Dylan songs where you marvel at the change in his vocal delivery.  It’s a vocal style he would use but once.  It’s a dark, weary Bob Dylan we hear here. 

The title of course was used by the producers of the film of the same name to tell the story of Dylan in six of his various incarnations, always changing, never what you expect.  On one level, I get it: Bob Dylan has morphed often over the years.  On another level, however, Dylan has been the same guy all along.  Consistently true to himself.  “I’m Not There”… ok.   Conversely, then, the unspoken response could be “I’m everywhere”.

I’ll leave you with this poem called “Astonish” by Odious Wench:

I can't wait to have my
Knocks Socked off!

Until next time, if you are going to dive, choose the deep end!

Note: this 2-part series is dedicated to fellow Theme Time Radio Hour enthusiast, Linda Whiteside (from Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing MN no less!) and Jeff Strause, who fed the flame. 


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Master Blueprints # 22: “I'll Ramble and Gamble for the One I Love. And the Hills Will Give Me a Song”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Red River Shore”
Album: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006
Release Date: Date: October 2008 (produced in 1989 during the Oh Mercy sessions)

Part 1 of 2

Flash back to early summer 2006, the first day in the week of a very large computer mapping (GIS) conference at the San Diego Convention Center, being hosted by ESRI.  Since I’ve been through this before, I know I’m in for a main-stage all-day marketing bonanza by the hosts.  Several colleagues are aware of this as well, and so, with the hope of getting some real work done, we make plans to take the 3-hour drive north to Redlands to meet with a few ESRI technical staffers at their corporate headquarters.  After a predictably productive day in Redlands, we start heading back to San Diego on an alternate scenic route though the canyons, which is recommended to us at the meeting. I’m driving, and as we weave our way up the mountain roads, I turn on the XM satellite radio that comes with the rental car and immediately I hear a familiar voice over the airwaves talking about, of all topics, mothers. Yes, those mothers: The (mostly) wonderful woman who reared us. 

This was my introduction to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, which began airing the week before (“Mother” was episode # 2 of 100) and I was fortunate to have stumbled into it so early.  I mean, to put this into perspective, I’m not someone who jumps out of the gate to get new technology.  My cell phone is antiquated.  Our home computer is too.  And so is my car and its satellite-bereft radio.  What can I say?  I don’t see it as a priority to jump on technology bandwagons, and neither does my wife Nancy (though we have not subjected our children to this position, and help pay for their various modern devices so they can fit in and not have to face good-natured ridicule like us). 

For those who have never listened to Theme Time Radio, I recommend you begin doing your homework (episodes are available on line).  The show works for anyone who loves music, period!  And it will never be dated.  The basic concept had Bob Dylan as DJ choosing a weekly theme, say “Death and Taxes” and then playing songs that reflected that given theme from all genera – be it swing, punk, blues, even sea shanties - since the dawn of recorded music.  Dylan would also offer up between-song commentary in the form of trivia, minutiae and anecdotes, which was often humorous.   It was all so fascinating, but most important, the program taught me more about the vast world of music than anything else I’d ever experienced. 

Aside from a few additional random moments with Theme Time Radio Hour on XM radio in cars not my own, I may have foolishly left that Southern California drive as a nice isolated experience if not for good friend Jeff Strause coming to the rescue.  Half a year into Season One, I received a parcel of 10 cd’s in the mail, each with a recorded episode.  Over the next few years I’d receive several more parcels of episodes.  These were some of the best gifts I have ever been given in my life, as I have listened to those cd’s as much as anything else I have in my entire record collection, and that’s saying something.  Thanks again, Jeff!

Before I dive into an idea I have for this entry, I need to reflect on a few memorable hillite-reel moments from Theme Time Radio.  My favorite episode was “California”, followed closely by “Days of the Week”.  Both captured the perfect mood for the given theme, and the diversity of music for each was masterfully orchestrated (about as well as Bob Dylan orchestrates his own songs).  Other great episodes included “Blood” and “Smoking”.  Then there was the hilarious lead-in to the “Classic Rock” episode; Dylan building up the anticipation for weeks.  When it finally came, the songs were all about…. rocks and other forms of geology.  LOL! (I have never and will never use that term again in this series, but it fits well here).  I loved Bob Dylan’s interpretation of an angry exchange between Nikiti Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the “Presidents” episode.  And hearing him cracking up while talking about the Byrds in the “Birds” episode.  I also loved DJ Dylan’s reflection on a handful of the famous last words of people on their death beds in the “Death and Taxes” episode, including Lou Costello’s “That’s the best ice cream soda I ever tasted”.  The man was clearly in his element, episode after episode after episode. 

Amazing music moments include Kris Kristofferson “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (closing the “Days of the Week” episode), Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead” (heard on the “Death and Taxes” episode), They Might Be Giants singing “James K Polk” (“Presidents” episode), Linda Thompson’s heart wrenching “Withered and Died” (“Death and Taxes”), and Townes Van Zandt’s eerie “Nothing” (from the episode of the same name).  There was the pleasant surprise of hearing Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins sing “Happy” (episode “Happiness”) and listening to Jolie Holland closing the “California” episode with “Goodbye California” (never mind hearing Dione Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and the Sir Douglas Quintet singing “Mendocino” in the same episode).  There was local Boston band “Morphine” singing “Thursday” on “Days of the Week”, Nervous Norvus singing “Transfusion” on the “Blood” episode, and Billie Holliday singing “What Is This Thing Called Love” in the “Questions” episode.  The list goes on my friends.

At one time or another Bob Dylan would end up playing the music of pretty much any quality musician you can think of including such diverse acts the Rolling Stones (once stating that he played them more than average because they were always supportive of black acts as backup bands at their shows), Randy Newman, Judy Garland, Muddy Waters, the Mississippi, Sheiks, Bing Crosby, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Lois Armstrong, Tiny Tim, Mose Allison, and Thunderclap Newman.  With that said, the only quality act Bob Dylan never covered on his radio program was the music of Mr. Top Cat himself… in other words his own songs (“Top Cat” by the way was the instrumental music that closed each show).  To my recollection there was one minor exception: An in-studio instrumental performance of “Blowin’ In the Wind” on the recorder during the “Days of the Week” episode. This was done immediately after Dylan played the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and discussed Brian Jones timeless playing of the recorder on that record (at the time, DJ Dylan called the recorder the most beautiful sounding of all musical instruments).  After this short rendition of “Blowin’ In the Wind” Bob Dylan courteously chirped “How about that!”.  Yeah, how about that. 

With all this in mind, I thought what I’d do in this entry and the next is envision a fictitious episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, consisting of all Bob Dylan songs.  The theme?  “Astonish”.  Here’s a chance, I thought, to run through 10 Dylan songs that have blown me away and do it in radio-format style.  I’ll have to substitute here for Bob Dylan as DJ, because Dylan would be too humble to do such a thing, so I won’t put myself in his shoes.  In the process I will do my best to honor the ambiance of the original Theme Time.  For those who read my blog series on a regular basis, you may notice a few songs that I’ve already covered as Blueprints. Mostly however, I’ll roll out songs that I’ve yet to discuss.  Here goes….

Good evening and welcome to Alternate-World Theme Time Radio.  Tonight’s episode, which is focused on the music of the real-world Theme Time host, Bob Dylan, may have you astonished, astounded, and floored.  Perhaps talking to yourself, speaking in tongues, or off on a quest for the Holy Grail.  Are you ready for mind expansion? Ready to solve the world’s problems?  I’m thinking it may be time to dust off that old VHS of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe take a Quantum Physics course.  Go ahead and stare deeper into that Burning Bush. It’s the new golden age of the enlightenment folks.  Be sure to eat your cheerios for breakfast, avocado for lunch, and fish for dinner. Then do what you must do, and after you do so, keep an ear open for Nobel to give you a call.

We can’t dive into the deep end right away.  It’s too steep.  So, let’s start with a little dream-sequence ditty from Bringing It All Back Home. You know the number: It’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”.  Hold on tight.  This dream makes Alice in Wonderland feel like a mandatory corporate training session.

There you go Alice.  Stick that in you pipe and smoke it! 

There’s a moral to the story here: If you find yourself in a dream that puts you in an endless parade of hopeless predicaments you gotta kinda roll with the punches. 

Speaking of stories, morals and predicaments, let’s move on to “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”.  Of the two characters here, who is the hero? Who is the victim?  You decide:

“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” starts off well enough, speaking to us average Joes in simple language we can understand.  This goes on for about three verses, where you’ve got a straight-up story of one guy (Frankie Lee) needing to borrow money and another (Judas Priest) willing to help his friend.  But my goodness, by the start of the fourth verse things start to get a whole lot deeper, with Judas Priest telling Frankie Lee that he’ll wait for him down the road in “Eternity” as Frankie Lee decides on how much money he wants to borrow. At the same time, Frankie Lee, apparently an agnostic, disputes Judas’ Priest use of the term.  The story just gets wilder from there, culminating with Frankie Lee tracking down Judas Priest (with the help of a ‘stranger’) at a bright home with “four and twenty windows, and a woman’s face in every one”.  Here Frankie Lee loses control “over everything he had made while the mission bells did toll”.  The saga ends with Frankie Lee dying of thirst in Judas Priest’s arms. There’s only one response to this story:  Yow!

“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” keeps you glued from beginning to end, but for my money it’s the closing stanza that I can never get enough of:

Well the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So, when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

Sing these words as you listen.  They’ll sink in…in ways that are difficult to explain.

Where to go from here?  How about we head for the hills…. the highlands to be more precise, which is the title of Bob Dylan’s longest song; 16 minutes and thirty-one seconds of raw emotion.  The “Highlands” highlight is of course the middle-frame storyline, which places Dylan in a “Boston Town” restaurant (being from the area, my thought is that the locale was in bordering Cambridge, at the old Wursthaus Restaurant in Harvard Square).  Go figure?  Boston is about as far from the highlands as one would think.  Well, this song is all over the map, and I’m not going to dwell here on the significance of the title.  What elevates it to being included in this Alternate Theme Time episode is in his exchange with a waitress in that Boston restaurant.  I’ll tackle that in a quarter hour or so.  In the meantime, set aside 16 minutes of mind space and have a listen:

As you may have deciphered, the waitress comes across from the beginning as …. confrontational.  She knows who this famous person is the second she lays eyes on him alone in his booth, and she’s ready to confront him for what she has already concluded as being a male chauvinist (which he addresses in the song).  You would think this a courageous stance, but the way the waitress goes about her protestation comes across as shallow and devoid of compassion.  Bob Dylan, trapped in his seat, sees this right away.  However, he adapts to the moment, albeit begrudgingly seeing as he’s forced into revealing to this waitress that she has become but a figment of her true self.  How does he do this?  Well the waitress knows that Dylan is an artist on the side and demands he draw a sketch of her.  After drawing a few lines on a napkin, he hands the results over and she tosses it back angrily while stating it looks nothing like her.  Dylan then says, “Oh kind miss, it most certainly does”.  She says, “You must be joking”.  His reply on its own fits our theme word “Astonish” like a glove: “I wish I was”. 

Next on the docket: “Red River Shore”.  First up in the astonish category regarding this song: How do you bury it?  Cut in the studio for the Time Out of Mind sessions in 1997, producer Daniel Lanois, along with the session musicians, all thought they caught lightning in a bottle.  But to their dismay, Bob Dylan decided to leave it off the final record.  It could be easily argued that “Red River Shore” was the best of the best of songs performed for Time Out of Mind.  And this is not an isolated event.  Dylan has done this throughout his career.  It’s head shaking when you think about it.  Without further ado, let’s have a listen:

It’s a beautiful song, is it not? Dwell for a moment if you can on Bob Dylan’s singing.  For example, when he sings the lyrics “well, I been to the east and I been to the west and I….”.  The slight hesitancy in that last “and I” makes it sound so personal.  To me “Red River Shore” is about a man who dedicates his life to a singular memory, and in doing so maintains his integrity despite his loneliness.  As with “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, this song also starts simple, chugging along in “I think I can” fashion.  But soon enough it shifts tracks to the mind-boggling speed rail.  The last three verses (6 - 8) are heartfelt and fascinating.  If we could all tap that deep into the well of creativity that is inside all of us this world would be a better place.

The rest of this Alternate Theme Time episode will conclude next entry with six more song reviews in Part 2 of 2. 

Closing note: this 2-part series is dedicated to fellow Theme Time Radio Hour enthusiast, Linda Whiteside (from Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing MN no less!) and Jeff Strause, who fed the flame.  


Monday, June 4, 2018

Master Blueprints # 21: “Oh, Jokerman, You Know What He Wants, Oh, Jokerman, You Don’t Show Any Response”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Jokerman”
Album: Infidels
Release Date: Date: October 1983

One subject I’ve yet to focus much attention on in this series is Bob Dylan’s early 60s protest music, which was creatively portrayed as a persona (by Christian Bale) in the highly recommended and aptly-named movie I’m Not There (one of six Dylan personas in the film, each played by a different actor).  Virtually every documentary of Bob Dylan I’ve ever read or watched includes at least one chapter or segment centered on this persona.  Most of these documentaries put a bow on that period at about the time Dylan went all rock & roll electric on everyone near the middle of the decade, presumably abandoning protest music in the process. To be more specific, political protest – which is how Joan Baez once explained it.  This distinction is important, because if defining ‘protest’ as “a solemn declaration” (which is at the nexus of the origin of the word) one could argue that Dylan would go on to protest all sorts of things as the 60s played out, from a bad work environment (“Maggie’s Farm”) to getting jilted (“She’s Your Lover Now”) to urban chaos (“Desolation Row”) to a prodigal daughter (“Tears of Rage”) to the consequences of apathy (“Too Much of Nothing”).

As the 70s rolled in, Bob Dylan did manage to weave back in the political-protest narrative here and there, including in his songs “Hurricane” and “Lenny Bruce”.  All the while, his other forms of protest continued, which was made clear in a classic moment on the Bob Dylan Live, 1975 disc, (see the last three Master Blueprint entries centered on the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Review Tour), where Dylan responds to a heckler in the crowd who yells “play a protest song!” by stating “here’s one for ya”.  He then goes on to play “Oh, Sister” – a lament on family discord from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks and a song which at first glance one would not equate to protestation.  As the decade concluded, Bob Dylan’s Gospel years kicked in, which included songs that were not only full of strong Faith, but that also include solemn declarations, often in the form of dire warning about the implications of turning a blind eye to God: Protests in their own right.

I get it though: For 20 years or so, there was nary the same level of commitment from Bob Dylan to the political-protest spark that he ignited in the early -60s.  However, Dylanologists should think of this more as a long hiatus rather than an abandonment, because in 1983, the man came back to this type of protest music with a vengeance, with his album Infidels.  The title fits the mold, does it not?  After all, Infidels was the first release on the tail end of that Gospel phase in Dylan’s career, and so considering these circumstances, what term would be more fitting to solemnly rail against someone or something? 

I cannot recall how or when I got into Infidels, but it was relatively early in my fascination with all things Dylan.  Most everyone has at least a mild curiosity in Bob Dylan, especially after his recent Nobel Prize recognition.  However, if that mild curiosity is to blossom, as mine did, then it’s likely a keen interest in his early protest music helped spur that on.  And yet, the thought that Dylan would truly abandon such strong convictions can be deflating to anyone trying to make these inroads.  I mean, who abandons their principles other than the foolhardy?  Alas, for me, it was Infidels that came to the rescue (although I would later figure there’s a lot more to it than that). 

I view Infidels as an end-side bookend album.  The beginning side of the bookend being 1978’s Street Legal.  In between are Bob Dylan’s three Gospel albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love.  I’ve recently contemplated these bookend albums as each having a cornerstone song. On Street Legal, it’s “Señor” and on Infidels it’s “Jokerman”, which is this entry’s focus tune ( ).  These songs are two of the most intense in Dylan’s vast catalog.  “Jokerman” is both an appeal to and a condemnation of a soul gone astray.  It’s from the viewpoint of a man who has experienced deep Christian Faith, and is articulated in a way that can only come from a someone who yearns to one day see the Promised Land.  As for “Señor”, which was written just prior to Bob Dylan’s Gospel-album journey, well, I’ve already written about this in Master Blueprints # 5, but here is an excerpt from that entry that is most relevant to this one:

“The very beginning and ending of Señor” is identical; a slow methodical series of guitar notes, which has me pondering that nothing has changed – despite the supernatural sojourn.  Dylan was stuck in a sort of purgatory at that stage in his life, but soon he would be ready to break that mold.” 

This week, I researched the setlist for a Bob Dylan concert that I witnessed from the 2nd row at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston in 1994.  I did this tracking because I wanted to verify my recollection that Dylan opened the show with “Jokerman” (he did).  I was already at least five years into my own journey with Infidels by the time so hearing this song live was a bit of a “Wow” moment for me.  However, what really caught my eye after I retrieved the setlist was the second song Dylan played that evening; Señor (see Master Blueprint # 5).  I was not yet familiar with this song at that time, so unfortunately, it did not reverberate.  Now I see this back-to-back performance of these two relatively deep tracks (at least in terms of performance) and I think…. hmmm, maybe I’m on to something here.

Ok, so in terms of protestations on Infidels, I’d like to work my way up to “Jokerman”.  Let me start with “Union Sundown”, a song about the erosion of hands-on American ingenuity, and one of two overtly political protest songs on the album (I try to refrain from political discourse in this blog series, but, I feel I’ve got no choice here).  This being 1983, it’s clear Bob Dylan threw his hat in the ring early on in expressing disappointment about how “made in America” was going the way of the Dodo. 

Ahh yes, the Reagan 80s.  It’s all coming back now.  Today, the rattling of cages on this issue is coming from staunch conservative circles, but “Union Sundown” hints at that mindset being what got us in this predicament in the first place, with populist lyrics like “you know, Capitalism is above the law”, and “the unions are big business friend, and their goin’ out like a dinosaur” and the refrain “sure was a good idea, ‘till greed got in the way”.  Regardless, Bob Dylan was showing a concern for his Country in a way that any true blue American -  no matter their political persuasion - could relate to. 

Listening to “Union Sundown” this week, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “We…will build your car” 2014 Super Bowl commercial, promoting American made automobiles: ( ).  If you don’t recall (or even if you do), give it a watch.  It’s worth the 2 minutes.

The other overtly political protest on the album is “Neighborhood Bully”, which goes to bat for the unique geopolitical situation of the Jewish State.  This is another position that seems to have been hijacked in recent years by staunch conservatism (while at the same time, conceivably abandoned by the liberal left).  One could easily argue this was the case in 1983 as well, but that would be an over generalization.  “Neighborhood Bully” was written only several years after the Iran hostage crisis, which was the first time America really felt it got burned by a Middle East country.  Back then, there was a general mindset of having been the victim.  Those were relatively innocent times to be an American.  Today, after much retaliation, we are in a lot deeper with the Middle East, and we continue to ally ourselves with an assortment of strange bedfellows.  Indeed, it’s a far more complex situation now, and yet, somehow, “Neighborhood Bully” does not sound dated in the least. However, the historical context must be factored in when listening. 

“License to Kill” is right up there as another example of a powerful solemn declaration, taking Type A personalities to task by shining a light on the often-tragic failure of aggressive impatient behavior.  To Bob Dylan’s courageous credit, the Type A personalities are represented in “License to Kill” as masculine, and the counterpoint rebuke - the Type B propensity for patience in other words - is represented as feminine.  For a little more detail, I also wrote about this one in Master Blueprints # 8, which included a review of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers amazing performance of “License to Kill” at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992.

The same masculine/feminine element plays out in “Sweetheart Like You”, the sweetheart in this case presumably being Mother Nature.  Again, there’s populist protest playing out here, best articulated in the line:

“They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot on they make you king”

One key and somewhat unique aspect of Infidels is that it ties Bob Dylan’s secular-leaning concerns to his faith-focused ones.  “I and I’, “Man of Peace” and “Jokerman” all lean closer to the faith vest.  As with so many of Dylan’s works, these songs are packed with multi-layered spiritual meaning.  All three have similar powerful messages, but “Jokerman” stands out.  One way it stands out is in Bob Dylan’s vocals on the studio version.  This song would only be interpreted as an indictment if just reading the lyrics, but the vocal delivery makes it also sound empathetic and hopeful, despite the depths of depravity that the singer is observing in the Jokerman character.  This gives “Jokerman” more of a cathartic feel.  It also raises the song to a truly Christian approach to protest.  And finally, it brings to the fore why I love listening to Bob Dylan:  He’s oh, so heavy, even dreadful here, but at the same time he’s oh so good for the soul.  If you can negotiate this duality, you have yourself a treasure trove of musical chestnuts at your disposal throughout the depth and breadth of Dylan’s catalog.

I’m going to wrap with the following.  I caught an interesting homily at Mass a month or so ago (yes, I am Catholic if you have not figured that already), where the priest, Father Jeremy, was reflecting on a reading he had just delivered from Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:33-35).  The passage is about the advice given by a well-respected Pharisee of the time named Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin (tribunals in the ancient land of Israel), who want to have the Apostles killed for speaking to crowds in Jesus name and for blaming these same Jewish leaders for His death.  Gamaliel's Advice: So in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone. Let them go! For if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. But if from God, you will not be able to stop them.  You may even find yourself fighting against God”. 

The interesting take Father Jeremy had on this passage was that he was putting a positive spin on the fact that these leaders were engaging the Apostles, despite the engagement being of a seriously confrontational nature.  His point being that by being so engaged, many of these Sanhedrin were showing passion, however misguided, which still gave them a fighting chance at finding truth.  Father Jeremy then contrasted both the converted and those persecuting them, with others who remained unengaged and uninterested despite all this passion surrounding them in Jerusalem in those, the earliest days of Christianity.  These were the ones, he stated, who were truly devoid of spirituality. These were the ones who had far less hope for redemption than even the nastiest of the Sanhedrin who were engaged.

This was what quickly came to mind after slipping Bob Dylan’s Infidels into my car’s cd player early this week and listening to that glorious opening salvo, “Jokerman”.  Bob Dylan is basically singing about the same type of apathy that Father Jeremy was sermonizing on (for the record, the most political-protest lyric from my perspective being the evil-despot line “manipulator of crowds. You’re a dream twister”).  There’s a lot of back and forth in “Jokerman”; a toggle from the holy to the unholy (a contrast that ends up driving home the lyrics at the end of the song, which I am unashamedly using for the title of this entry: “Oh, Jokerman, you know what He wants. Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response”).  This, along with other elements, such as a need for a deep understanding of Biblical theology, can make the song confusing.  But if you stick with the sentiment alone out of the gate, it will propel you forward with this incredible tune, as well as this very underrated album.

Well I never did tackle that early protest period.  Soon enough I’m sure. However, after drafting this entry, I hope I’ve made the case that Bob Dylan has never really abandoned protest, and I don’t believe he thinks so either.